"Gene was a member of our Billboard family for nearly four decades and remained committed to the brand and its values and ideals of excellence until his death. He will be missed," says Jay Penske, chairman/CEO of Billboard parent company PMC.
Although in his later days Smith was known primarily as Billboard’s managing director for Latin, he literally created and ran the brand's advertising and sales operation for decades, beginning as associate publisher/Directories Publisher in 1985. He would later become associate publisher/director of sales & marketing and associate publisher/sales. For at least the past 15 years, he was managing director/Latin, and instrumental in growing the brand’s Latin presence.
"Gene was one of the greatest advertising executives in the 127-year history of Billboard," says Billboard's vp of sales, Joe Maimone. "Gene was a beloved, valuable, high-profile member of our organization for 36 years. He helped construct and perfect the Billboard ad sales organization as it flourishes today, and he’ll always be remembered most for his passion, professionalism and commitment to excellence in promoting our illustrious brand."
A relentless cheerleader for the brand, Smith was a seasoned executive who understood the importance of the charts and of the integrity of the Billboard name and representation.
"Gene will be remembered as a legendary and visionary figure in the brand’s long history," says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s svp of charts. "He undertook many leadership roles over the years and continually maintained an energetic and enthusiastic view of Billboard and the music industry. Gene was a unique and entertaining character, as anyone who knew him could attest, and he will be missed."
Smith played a key role in expanding Billboard’s advertising base into international markets and into the Latin music business, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Among his many initiatives, recalls Thom Duffy, Billboard’s executive director of special features and power lists, was enhancing the company's presence at the annual global MIDEM conference in Cannes. One year, Smith created a promotion that consisted of an umbrella, distributed at MIDEM, and imprinted with a world map and the slogan "Billboard Covers the World."
"Gene was a dapper, gracious and relentlessly upbeat representative for Billboard," adds Duffy.
Although Smith spoke little Spanish -- perhaps his most-used word was "gracias," delivered in his own Gene Smith accent -- he believed profoundly in the power and potential of the Latin music market, and was perhaps the first media executive in the United States to lobby consistently for investment in that area. With a big personality and relentless optimism, Smith managed to "know everyone" in the Latin music business, from managers and artists to label heads and promoters.
"I met Gene some 30 years ago. He was a gentleman and a believer in our Latin industry," recalls CAA agent Bruno del Granado.
"Gene was a restless professional, a charming man and a gentleman," added Luana Pagani, a partner in Seitrack.
Among Smith’s lasting contributions to the brand was the launch of the Billboard Latin Music Conference in 1990. The generically named Latin Music Seminar began as a one-day event that consisted of five industry panels, two showcases and an award show. About 150 attended the conference. Since then, it has grown to become a week-long celebration and Billboard’s longest running and most successful event.
"Gene Smith was responsible for bringing me onboard to work with his team in 1987," recalls publicist Angela Rodriguez, founder and owner of AR Entertainment. "He was a trailblazer in the Latin music industry and led the way along with me and Marv Fisher to launch the first Latin Music Conference and Award show, making history for Billboard. He was a trip and he was ageless."
Smith was also instrumental behind the launch of the Billboard Regional Mexican Music Conference, which ran for five years along with the Billboard Regional Mexican Music awards.
Smith is often recalled by former and present employees as someone who took chances.
Michele Jacangelo, Billboard’s former director of events, remembers that Smith hired her fresh out of college, when she was working at Saks Fifth Avenue alongside Maria Smith (Gene’s wife) but trying to break into the music business.
"Gene hired me as his temporary assistant in the Fall of 1990," says Jacangelo. "Well, I never left. I worked there for 21 years producing events and I owe it to this generous man who took a chance on me. We worked on many Latin Music Conferences and Awards and I have incredible memories. I will be forever grateful to both Gene and Maria for the opportunity. It changed my life."
Smith also gave an opportunity to Marcia Olival, who leads Billboard’s Latin sales.
“He hired me in 1996 and he took a chance with me," she says. "I considered him a father and we went through many ups and downs in Billboard, but his strength and perseverance never ever stopped him. I will remember him as one of the pioneers of Latin Music."
Smith is survived by his daughters Lisa and Gina, his son Lee Smith -- a writer with Rolling Stone — and his wife Maria. Information on his funeral services will be updated when available.
"Gene Smith was, unquestionably, one of the Good Guys in our business," says concert promoter Phil Rodriguez. "He will be missed."